This year, the hectic portion of the NHL offseason comes with more intrigue than in years past.
The effects of last season’s lockout continue to ripple, with a compressed schedule leaving only six days between the conclusion of the Stanley Cup finals and Sunday’s NHL draft. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap will decrease for the first time since the NHL instituted it for the 2005-06 season. And with a shallow overall talent pool available in free agency, which will open Friday, it seems many teams are in the mix for trades.
“There may be more activity in this one than in other drafts,” Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee said leading up to the draft at Prudential Center in Newark. “You would think that that would be the case because some teams have cap issues and have to move some players. You would think there would be more of that kind of activity. So we’ll see.”
The Capitals hold eight selections on Sunday, including the 23rd overall, but it’s highly unlikely any of the prospects they choose would make an immediate impact in the NHL. If Washington alters its look for 2013-14 this weekend it will be by trade.
While McPhee remained true to form and didn’t divulge his approach to the draft or the bustling trade market to reporters, recent history provides a pattern.
McPhee has made a draft-day trade each of the past five years, three of which resulted in the addition of key parts to the Capitals’ roster last season. At the 2012 draft, Washington acquired Mike Ribeiro from Dallas in exchange for prospect Cody Eakin and a second-round pick. By sending their first-round pick to Chicago in 2011, the Capitals picked up the rights to then-restricted free agent Troy Brouwer. And in 2008, Washington packaged Steve Eminger and a third-rounder to Philadelphia for the 27th overall choice that yielded John Carlson.
It would hardly be a surprise to see that trend continue. Players that could be on the move this weekend range from big names such as Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang and one of Vancouver’s goaltenders, Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider, to role players like Chicago’s Dave Bolland and Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck. Other deals could include the rights to impending free agents, for example defenseman Andrew Ference, who won’t be re-signed by Boston.
The salary cap for next season is $64.3 million, roughly $6 million less than what it was this season, forcing teams to creatively balance their salary distribution as they work to improve their rosters. The introduction of compliance buyouts, which are akin to the NBA’s amnesty clause and do not result in a cap hit, have added unexpected names to the free agent market including veteran center Vincent Lecavalier, forward Danny Briere, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and perhaps more to come.
One thing is abundantly clear this year, and it’s that general managers aren’t wasting time being coy. Instead they’re broadcasting their wants and tradable assets to all of their counterparts.
“Especially this year teams are more forthcoming on what they want to do,” McPhee said. “ ‘Here are the guys I’m looking to move, here’s what I’m looking to keep.’ Years ago people weren’t that open about that, but now they have to get the guys that they want to move out there.”
The Capitals have more than $58 million committed to 19 players for next season, according to Capgeek.com, leaving approximately $6 million in space under the new salary cap. It’s not a terribly restrictive amount, but it might be a tight squeeze to address several needs — even if McPhee manages to accommodate Jeff Schultz’s trade request or opts to buy out the defenseman in order to shed his $2.75 million salary cap hit.
Restricted free agents Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson, both due raises from their previous salaries of $1.27 million and $900,000, respectively, are expected to be re-signed. But once they are, how much room will remain to address other areas is uncertain.
If the Capitals don’t intend to bring back Ribeiro, an impending unrestricted free agent who filled the team’s persistent hole at second-line center but turned down its initial contract offer of three years and $14 million, they could use more depth down the middle. A trade could be the best option if McPhee isn’t sold on spending to land free agents Lecavalier, Briere or Stephen Weiss.
Then there’s the issue of bolstering the defense. While John Erskine had a renaissance year in 2013, his performance dropped off noticeably in the postseason. Washington could use a steady, left-handed top-four defenseman — Ference would be a possible fit — to play alongside Carlson.
The potential for moves at the draft is largely why the Capitals have been quiet thus far and why McPhee hasn’t assessed the probability of either Ribeiro or Matt Hendricks returning to Washington. He’s keeping his options open.
“I don’t like to do too many things before we go to the draft because you want to maintain some flexibility and know everything that’s out there,” McPhee said. “I wouldn’t want to get locked in to too many things before the draft. We’ll see how things go there and what route we take after that.”
Capitals notes: Washington holds picks in the first (23rd overall), second (53rd), third (84th), fourth (114th), fifth (127th and 144th), sixth (174th) and seventh (204th) rounds.